By Anna Peirano
As she knelt before him to receive the Eucharist, he told her “I cannot give you Communion because you live with a woman, and in the eyes of the church that is a sin.”
Barbara Johnson, a 51-year-old art studio owner, was shocked, but did not create a scene as she rose and moved away from the altar. “I was very composed, but internally I was very upset,” she said.
The priest, Father Marcel Guarnizo of St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, left the altar while Johnson delivered a eulogy for her mother. He also refused to accompany the funeral procession to the gravesite, requiring the group to scramble to find another priest. He was unaware of Johnson’s sexual orientation until the day of the funeral, when her partner of 20 years introduced herself.
Heads of the Catholic Church have apologized to Johnson, including the Catholic archdioceses of Washington D.C. and Reverend Thomas LaHood, pastor of St. John Neumann and Guarnizo’s superior. Most Reverend Barry Nestout, auxiliary bishop and vicar general, also issued a formal apology and a letter to Johnson. In the letter, he writes, “In my years as a priest, I have encountered many pastoral situations and know that kindness to those experiencing personal loss is a necessary part of the church’s call to clarity. The fact that you did not experience this is a cause of great concern and personal regret to me.”
Johnson and her family have called for Guarnizo to be removed from the ministry, so he will “not have the opportunity to inflict this kind of suffering on any family in the future.” Archdiocesan officials said that the priest’s actions violated public policy, but said the matter would be handled confidentially since it involves personnel.
Communion is the most important sacrament for Catholics. The consumption of bread and wine represents the literal body and blood of Christ, and the spiritual union between Christ and the communicant. Catholics are not advised to seek Communion if they are withholding a grave sin without confession. However, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says, “Since it is difficult to know what is in a person’s heart, it is also important that when doubt arises regarding whether a person is properly disposed to receive the Eucharist, it is handled in a pastoral and compassionate manner, privately between the priest and the communicant.”
Johnson still considers herself a Catholic, and does not want people to leave the church for her sake, in protest of the issue. She said, “the last thing that my mother would want would be for her funeral to turn Catholics away from the faith.”